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Film Review: Made In England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger (12A). By Harry Mount

Pursuits | By Harry Mount

Heavenly: Powell films David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, 1946




It takes an outsider to spot the best – and worst – things about the British.

When that outsider is Martin Scorsese, you’re in for a treat. Scorsese, a Times Literary Supplement subscriber, could have been a terrific film critic if he hadn’t been such a terrific film director.

Because of a strange licensing issue, US films weren’t shown on postwar American TV but British films were. And so Scorsese (b 1942) grew up watching British movies – in particular, the delightful work of Michael Powell (1905-90) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-88).

Scorsese became so obsessed with Powell that when he came to England in the 1970s, he tracked him down to a small Gloucestershire cottage. Powell was in penury, after his films had gone out of fashion. Scorsese befriended him and – though he’s too modest to say it – revived his career.

Powell moved to Hollywood as a consultant and married Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-term film editor. He also gave Scorsese informal advice on his films. When Powell saw Mean Streets (1973), he said he got ‘tired of the red’. That’s a bit rich, coming from the director of The Red Shoes (1948).

But Scorsese continued to admire him, as did his fellow Americans Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. How funny that the charming, hyper-British films of Powell and Pressburger should influence those American bloodbath classics The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Scarface and Carlito’s Way.

The poignant Scorsese-Powell friendship bookends the film – but the movie is really about the marvellous Powell-Pressburger partnership.

In background, they were chalk and cheese. Powell was a middle-class Kent boy, who went to Dulwich College and King’s School, Canterbury – next to the cathedral that figures so prominently in A Canterbury Tale (1944). Powell learnt his craft in the 1920s with Rex Ingram and Alfred Hitchcock, and churned out quota quickies in the early 1930s.

Pressburger brought to the partnership all the originality of the genius outsider. Jewish, born in Hungary, he wrote scripts in Germany and France, fleeing Berlin and Nazi persecution in 1935. Pressburger said he was ‘born at the age of 33’, when he came to Britain and restarted his career in a different country and a different language.

Thanks to Alexander Korda (producer of The Third Man – see page 18), Pressburger met Powell on their first collaboration, The Spy in Black (1939), about German U-boat sailors in the Orkneys in the First World War.

And so their unique, almost telepathic link was forged. Pressburger wrote the scripts and Powell directed them; they produced them together. In archive footage shot in their old age, Powell speaks in urbane, diffident English; Pressburger with a thick accent. You can sense their strong link, as they smile at each other’s reminiscences – they never had a cross word in 20 years’ working together.

This is really a film for Powell and Pressburger fans. If you are one, you’ll share Scorsese’s enthusiasms. He was thrilled by their nitrate colour prints, used to produce intense, saturated colours. Watching The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the young Scorsese was blown away by the duel between Blimp (Roger Livesey) and Theo Kretschmar- Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The film concentrates on the build-up rather than the duel itself. He used this technique in Raging Bull (1980), focusing on Jake LaMotta’s long walk to the ring.

Scorsese shows how subversive the Powell-Pressburger films were, for all their ultra-Britishness. Powell hated being ‘tied to facts’ – thus the dreariness of their conventional war films, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). As Pressburger put it, the two of them ‘set traps to capture magic’.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is full of magic tricks: the frozen moments where the cast stands still while David Niven is caught in limbo between life and death; filming heaven in bleak black-and- white, with the joy of real life captured in three-strip Technicolor. The technical side wasn’t easy either: the stairway to heaven took three months to build.

Scorsese takes you through the technical side of film-making without blinding you with science. Take the ‘composed film’ technique, pioneered in Black Narcissus (1947). Ten minutes were devoted just to music, without words, with the movie filmed round the music, rather than the music being fitted to the movie.

‘All art is one,’ Powell said of the combination of his influences. And Scorsese is the ideal guide to the Powell- Pressburger art of dreamlike, magical film-making.

This story was from June 2024 issue. Subscribe Now